By John Madera
It’s Bradford Morrow’s birthday, today, and so I decided to spend the day reading The Uninnocent, his collection of gothic fictions, a book limning life’s many shadows, whether caused by illness, madness, pain, loss, or death.
“The Hoarder” finds Morrow addressing how collecting can be a prelude to madness, a madness leading to murder. “Gardener of the Heart” enacts an archeology of loss and memory. “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances” is an investigation of the singular darkness that is the family secret. In “Amazing Grace,” a man, blinded in an unfortunate accident, recovers his sight years later, only to find he was living a life tragically opposite to the life he thought he had been living, his exacting vengeance virtually biblical in proportions.
Violence suffuses these tales. “There are four ways a person can die. Natural causes, accidental, suicide, and murder,” one of Morrow’s stories reminds us; and these fictions invariably feature one or more of such deaths. The troubled man in “The Hoarder,” for instance, murders his brother. A woman murders her abusive husband in “Tsunami,” but not before registering sundry deaths she’d heard reported on various news broadcasts. A cuckold kills his wife’s inamorato in “[Mis]laid.” It’s a devastating portrait of an unhinged mind. Its clever use of parenthetical elaborations and meanderings makes for an ingenious polyphonic and darkly comic narrative. You’ll find another troubled collector in “All the Things That Are Wrong with Me,” its now-institutionalized narrator recollecting how a mountain lion had escaped from a makeshift-menagerie, the beast tearing off a child’s arm. A strange man is killed by a boy in “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill,” a fiction intimating that there might have been more to Orson Welles’s infamous hoax: the Halloween Broadcast of 1938.
Yes, these fictions are dark, but they are also made up of luminous prose. Here’s just one cherry-picked example (from “Gardener of the Heart”):
Now I saw the church spires above the sea of trees, then one by one the charming clapboard houses of our childhood, and above all that mortuary roof, gun-barrel gray against the jay-blue sky. There were the glorious smells of leaves burning; a garden of dying asters whose yellow centers were catafalques for exhausted wasps in their final throes; the blood-red cardinal acrobating about in his holly bush.
Bradford Morrow is clearly a master of the American Gothic, his fictions evoking Flannery O’Connor’s explorative intertwinings of violence and justice and grace, John Hawkes’s nightmarish visions, and Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft’s irrepressible casts of outcasts, misfits, and lunatics.